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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Going up in flames! Fires at waste facilities and what you need to know

By Kim Glassborow

Over the past few months, an alarming number of resource recovery and waste management facilities have caught fire causing significant damage to infrastructure, plant and equipment.

There are legal requirements that specify what waste facilities must do to prevent fires as well as what must be done in the event of a fire.

At times of an emergency, it is important you have procedures in place that are effective and can be implemented without delay.  

Planning requirements

Since the 1980s, the NSW Department of Planning has attempted to manage the risk of fire during the planning and design phase of certain developments. To date, the more stringent requirements of undertaking a Fire Safety Study have been limited to “potentially hazardous developments”.

However, there has been an increasing number of fire incidents which have occurred at waste facilities that are not categorised as potentially hazardous, yet do contain large volumes of combustible material. Though not required by the law, the relevant authorities have been pushing for more stringent risk assessments to be undertaken to prevent the risk of fire at all types of industrial facilities. The Fire Safety Study Guidelines (NSW Department of Planning, 2011) recommend that basic fire safety issues should be considered early in the planning and design process for a new development.

Insurance impacts

As a result of the recent fires in NSW and Victoria, insurance brokers Arthur J. Gallagher Insurance Brokers have warned that an increase in insurance premiums for waste management businesses is likely. However, businesses with strong risk mitigation processes in place may experience lower premiums than those that do not. This shows an economic benefit for waste facilities that have procedures including:

·         regular checks and maintenance of fire safety equipment;

·         preparation and display of emergency evacuation plans;

·         fire warden training;

·         maintenance of equipment such as bunding and electricals; and

·         safe storage of flammable material.

EPA’s requirements

Under the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 (NSW) a licence holder is required to prepare a Pollution Incident Response Management Plan (PIRMP) (Section 153A).

Failure to do so may attract a penalty of up to $1 million. This plan must include:

1.       The procedures to be followed in notifying a ‘pollution incident’ to premises in the vicinity and the relevant authority.

2.       A detailed description of the action to be taken to reduce or control the pollution.

Licence holders are required to report pollution incidents causing or threatening material harm to the environment immediately to relevant authorities including the EPA, NSW Health, Fire and Rescue NSW, SafeWork NSW, the local council and premises in the vicinity.

A ‘pollution incident’ is an incident during which there is or is likely to be a leak, spill or other escape or deposit of a substance, as a result of which pollution has occurred, is occurring or is likely to occur. In the event of a fire, the procedures in the PIRMP must be followed.

An increase in the prevalence of fires prompts consent authorities to require applicants for development consents or Environment Protection Licences to provide further information regarding fire safety measures from the outset. There are a multitude of reasons to consider fire risks and safety measures from the start of development process. For established facilities, it is also never too late to upgrade processes and procedures.

Kim Glassborow is a partner at G&B Lawyers specialising in waste management legislation, planning and environmental law. Contact: kglassborow@gandblawyers.com.au